Fed up with being part of a group that cuts off a person’s face with piano wire to teach others a lesson, dozens of low-level members of al-Qaeda in Iraq are daring to become informants for the US military in a hostile Baghdad neighbourhood.
The ground-breaking move in Doura is part of a wider trend that has started in other al-Qaeda hotspots across the country and in which Sunni insurgent groups and tribal sheikhs have stood together with the coalition against the extremist movement.
“They are turning. We are talking to people who we believe have worked for al-Qaeda in Iraq and want to reconcile and have peace,”? said Colonel Ricky Gibbs, commander of the 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, which oversees the area.
The sewage-filled streets of Doura, a Sunni Arab enclave in south Baghdad, provide an ugly setting for what US commanders say is al-Qaeda’s last stronghold in the city. The secretive group, however, appears to be losing its grip as a “surge”? of US troops in the neighbourhood – part of the latest effort by President Bush to end the chaos in Iraq – has resulted in scores of fighters being killed, captured or forced to flee.
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“Al-Qaeda’s days are numbered and right now he is scrambling,”? said Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Michael, who commands a battalion of 700 troops in Doura.
A key factor is that local people and members of al-Qaeda itself have become sickened by the violence and are starting to rebel, Lieutenant-Colonel Michael said. “The people have got to deny them sanctuary and that is exactly what is happening.”?
Al-Qaeda informants comprise largely members of the Doura network who found themselves either working with the group after the US-led invasion in March 2003, or signed up to earn extra cash because there were no other jobs going. Disgusted at the attacks and intimidation techniques used on friends, neighbours and even relatives, they are now increasingly looking for a way out, US officers say.
“It is only after al-Qaeda has become truly barbaric and done things like, to teach lessons to people, cut their face off with piano wire in front of their family and then murdered everybody except one child who told the tale afterwards . . . that people realise how much of a mess they are in,”? Lieutenant James Danly, 31, who works on military intelligence in Doura, said.
It is impossible to corroborate the claims, but he said that scores of junior al-Qaeda in Iraq members there had become informants since May, including one low-level cell leader who gave vital information after his arrest.
“He gave us dates, places and names and who did what,”? Lieutenant Danly said. When asked why he was being so forthcoming, the man said: “Because I am sick of it and I hate them, and I am done.”?
Working with insurgents – even those who claim to have switched sides – is a leap of faith for both sides. involved. Every informant who visits Forward Operating Base Falcon, a vast military camp on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, is blindfolded when brought in and out to avoid gleaning any information about his surroundings.
The risk sometimes pays off. A recent tip-off led to the fatal shooting of Abu Kaldoun, one of three senior al-Qaeda leaders in Doura, during a US raid last week. “He was turned in by one of his own,”? Colonel Michael said.
Progress with making contacts and gathering actionable information is slow because al-Qaeda has persuasive methods of keeping people quiet. This month it beheaded two men in the street and pinned a note on to their corpses giving warning that anyone who cooperated with US troops would meet the same fate.
The increased presence of US forces in Doura, however, is encouraging insiders to overcome their fear and divulge what they know. Convoys of US soldiers are working the rubble-strewn streets day and night, knocking on doors, speaking to locals and following up leads on possible insurgent hideouts.
“People in al-Qaeda come to us and give us information,”? said Lieutenant Scott Flanigan, as he drove past a line of fruit and vegetable stalls near a shabby shopping street in Doura, where people were buying bread and other groceries.
The informants were not seeking an amnesty for crimes that they had committed. “They just do not want to be killed,”? Lieutenant Flanigan said.
Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – who was killed in a US raid last year – established the Iraqi al-Qaeda network in 2004, but opinions differ on its compilation, size and capabilities. Some military experts believe that the group is a cell-based network of chapters who are loosely linked to an overall leader by go-between operatives.
Others, however, describe al-Qaeda in Iraq as a sort of franchise, with separate cells around the country that use the brand – made infamous by Osama bin Laden – and cultural ideology but do not work closely with each other or for one overriding leader.
Despite the uncertainties one thing seems guaranteed. A hardcore of people calling themselves al-Qaeda in Iraq remains devoted to the extremist cause and is determined to fight on whatever the cost.